Agility competitor and coach Megan Foster joins me to talk about handling errors in training and in the ring — and about the skills most handlers don't even realize they and their dog's need to actually achieve success.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we'll be talking to Megan Foster.
Megan has been involved in the dog sports world nearly her entire life, and agility has been her passion right from the start.
With over 20 years of experience, she has competed with a variety of dogs, including an American Eskimo, White Highland Terrier, Shelties, Border Collies, and Parson Russell Terriers. Her accomplishments include many USDAA Agility Dog Champion titles, AKC Master Agility Champion titles, Regional and National Championships, and she represented the U.S. at the European Open in 2015.
Megan was also a USDAA judge for over 10 years, providing valuable insight into course design, course analysis, and handling styles throughout the United States.
For the last six years, she has taught agility full-time, in person and online, through her training school, Synergy Dog Sports. She became a OneMind Dogs Assistant Coach in 2016, and finished her Coach Certification in 2018. She believes in developing a system of communication based on the dog's perspective and what dogs naturally understand, and then individualizing that system for the humans that train and run them.
Welcome to the podcast, Megan!
Megan Foster: Thanks Melissa. I'm happy to be here.
Melissa Breau: Excited to talk! To start us out, can you give us a little bit of info about your current dogs and what you're working on with them?
Megan Foster: Sure. I currently have three dogs of my own. Smack is an 11-year-old Border Collie, and while at 11 years old we're not training on anything specific, he and I are still actively competing in agility, and right now it doesn't look like he has any plans to retire anytime soon, so I'm really excited about that. We're just perfect together at this point.
My second dog, Shock, is an 8-year-old Border Collie, and she doesn't find competing in agility all that comfortable. She has some noise sensitivity issues. So she is mostly retired from competition, but all of my dogs get training, no matter what kind, so she still does a lot of agility training, and whatever I need to work on, I usually use her to practice my mechanics on.
Shrek is my nearly 4-year-old Parson Russell Terrier, who I do most of my training with. We are training in agility and Fenzi TEAM titles, and we are working a lot on competition prep right now, trying to get us into the ring this year.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. That's exciting.
Megan Foster: Yeah. It's a fun group of pups.
Melissa Breau: I know I mentioned that you've been doing this stuff for a long time. How did you originally get into this dog thing?
Megan Foster: There were animals around all of the time and my family took the dog to obedience class. That was when agility was just starting to become a thing in the U.S. Going to obedience classes we found out about agility, and pretty soon my parents were really excited about it and pretty big into it. One of our horse pastures became an agility field, and we built all the equipment, and just like that, agility was my thing.
Melissa Breau: Starting out in obedience and hopping over to agility, were you always a positive trainer?
Megan Foster: I sort of think so, because doesn't a 5-year-old or a 6-year-old walking around with a pinch collar and using aversives just sound ridiculous?
Melissa Breau: A little bit.
Megan Foster: Right. My first dog was a Sheltie, so I don't even really remember ever being taught to use aversives specifically, but I have to assume that's because it would never work. I do remember that pinch collars and corrections were still a thing, but I also remember that using food and using positive reinforcement was also a thing. So in my head, yes, I've always been a positive trainer, just from the sense that I was just out there running around with my dog.
Melissa Breau: To dig into that a little bit more, how would you describe your approach to training today? I'm assuming it's evolved a little bit since then.
Megan Foster: Absolutely. As much as I can, I try to still be that kid just out there playing with her dogs. But obviously I have a ton more knowledge and experience today, and so I mostly focus on breaking skills down into the most manageable pieces for both the human learner and the canine learner, and I focus on each individual team and their big picture. So even if I have done it one way with every single dog for the last year, some new dog comes up into one of my classes and they're telling me they need something different, I'm pretty quick to go find something different for them.
Melissa Breau: Kind of making things unique for the dog and the handler.
Megan Foster: If I have to, yeah, for sure.
Melissa Breau: I think a lot of people approach sports and they only look at the skills: the heeling, the fronts, the sits and downs for obedience, or weave poles, jumps, tunnels, contact equipment when they're talking about agility. What. in your opinion obviously, do you think that people need to teach their dogs beyond that, beyond just how to use the equipment, if they want to be successful in agility?
Megan Foster: I always tell my students that agility is the easy part. Teaching dogs obstacles — they love that stuff. That's usually the most simple part of creating an agility dog. So they need to be comfortable with long periods of downtime. Competition is 30 seconds to a minute of running, and then hours, maybe, in-between runs, so they need to be OK.
They need to be able to rest in a crate. They need to be able to deal with big crowds, loud noises, busy environments, and they also need to be able to move back and forth between obstacle focus and handler focus. That's specifically on an agility course, but all those other things outside the ring matter too.
Melissa Breau: What about, to flip that a little bit, the handlers themselves? Are there things people don't think about that THEY need to learn, if they want to be successful in the sport?
Megan Foster: I find that a lot of people may not know that their agility dogs need all those other skills. So that's usually step one. But I think the biggest piece of agility training for handlers that's missing is mindset training, and that if you're entering a competition, you not only need to be focusing on your technical skills, but you need to be focusing on your mental skills as well.
Melissa Breau: Can you talk a little more about that? I'm curious what you mean by that.
Megan Foster: By mindset skills, being able to get in the zone and be ready and leave all your work problems and your home problems and all the other stuff that makes you you outside of the agility ring. You need to be able to put it on hold for those few minutes when you're inside of the ring.
And not to be soft and fluffy on yourself, but being able to focus on what went well instead of everything that went wrong. I think that's especially hard for us, dog trainers. We tend to be perfectionists and we want to get it right, so we tend to focus a lot on what was going wrong. If we just flip that skill around to focusing on the positive, I think we'd get better results faster. Also we want our dogs to be a hundred percent focused when we ask them to compete. I also want the handler to be a hundred percent focused when I ask them to compete. That's where those mindset skills for the human come in handy a lot.
Melissa Breau: It's interesting, because I think a lot of people overlook that piece of it, and then they're there and they're nervous and that communicates to their dog, and it's all those other pieces.
Megan Foster: Absolutely. In all of these feelings that, OK, we work on our dog being able to ignore distractions, ignore people watching them, ignore loud noises. But then, when we really get down to it, do we even have those skills? Can we ignore that there's a judge out there judging us, literally judging us. People watching — maybe they are talking about us, and we don't know what they're saying. Usually it's almost always good stuff, but just those things that humans aren't taught to ignore those distractions, and I think those are big things to focus on.
Melissa Breau: I want to talk a little bit about errors in training, because I know you have a workshop coming up on that specifically, on handling errors in agility, and I think these two pieces tie together. But before we dive into that too much, can you give us a basic definition? What do you consider an error when we're talking about agility?
Megan Foster: I consider an error to be an unexpected response to a cue the handler thought they gave.
Melissa Breau: OK. There's a lot of pieces in there to pull apart.
Megan Foster: Yes, there are.
Melissa Breau: So an unexpected response to a cue the handler thought they gave.
Megan Foster: Correct.
Melissa Breau: What are some of the things that can cause that?
Megan Foster: The hardest part of agility is that there's handler skills, the handler is guiding the dog around the course, and then there's all these obstacle skills that we hopefully taught our dogs to complete independently of our handling cues.
But then teaching the dog when the handler is relevant and when the handler isn't relevant sometimes muddies up everything. So that's usually where errors occur is because if the handler gives a mistimed cue, so the dog was in the obstacle focus where he thought he wasn't supposed to be paying attention to the handler, but then the handler expected him to be paying attention, and an error occurs.
So the dog thought one thing, handler thought another thing, and we end up with this mistake. Sometimes the handler thinks they're giving the correct cue, the cue that the dog needs next, and it's just the wrong cue altogether.
Melissa Breau: I'm guessing you mean more than literally saying the wrong word, although I'm sure that happens too.
Megan Foster: Right, right, because we don't have just physical cues; we have verbal cues. I think the physical cues are broken into seven pieces. The first one is movement. The second one is position of the handler. The third is where the handler is looking. The fourth is where the handler's chest is pointing. Fifth is where the handler's feet are pointing. Then the handler's arms, and then the handler's verbal cues.
So you've got all of those things working at the same time, and you have this dog that is incredibly observant of all of those things. Maybe the handler has four of those things cuing one thing, but then three of those things cuing another, and we don't even know it because they're so observant of our tiny little movements that something unexpected happens. That's why I keep going back to that definition of an unexpected response.
Melissa Breau: When you said "the cue we thought we gave," that's also what you're talking about there too, right? The idea that there are all these pieces, and part of it's giving one cue and part of it's giving another cue, and that's not what we meant.
Megan Foster: Right. Exactly. No dog is answering wrong on purpose. They gave you a response that they thought was a hundred percent correct in that moment, based on what information they were able to take in at the moment they were able to take it in. That's where the timing comes in, because if the dog is still in a tunnel, they can't see you, and your cue is a little bit too early, then they're doing their best with the information that they got.
Melissa Breau: How do we take that idea and condense it with this idea that we often hear: "Set the dog up for success." A lot of times, the person is learning alongside their dog. You're talking about the person needs to learn all these different handler motions and cues, and how to correctly manage timing. Can you get into that a little bit? How do we balance those two things about making sure we're not setting our dogs up to deal with lots of frustration and failure and whatever else, and to also learn ourselves?
Megan Foster: It's actually my least favorite part of agility is that the dog and the human have to learn at the same time. I wish I had a house full of school dogs for students to learn on, because I think it would be so much nicer for the dogs in the long run, and the students, because then everyone can just focus on one thing. But, since that's not going to happen, I'm not going to have a house full of school dogs …
Melissa Breau: You're not?
Megan Foster: No, I'm at my maximum capacity, and I want to squeeze in one more. But I do try to encourage students to separate skills as best they can. I go into a lot of how to set up a training structure in the workshop, but basically, if something is new to either the handler or the dog, I don't combine two things together.
I don't work on a new handling skill and a new obstacle skill in the same session, or even not new but not really well known. I try to break things down into as small of pieces as I can so that we're either focusing on the dog's behavior or the handler's behavior and not combining those things until much later.
Melissa Breau: I know mentioned that perfectionist thing earlier. I'm curious, because I'm sure people are going to wonder this. When you say "a session," do you mean we're working on this particular exercise right now, and then we take a short break, and ten minutes later we're working on something else, or are you talking about a period for one day you focus on obstacle skills, and on a different day you focus on some handling stuff?
Megan Foster: Maybe. For me, a session is a ten-minute or ten-cookie period I'm doing. I might work on a handling skill for me and an obstacle skill for my dog on the same day, just not at the same time, usually.
Or if I want to work on, say, my dog walk at speed, I'm going to try to set up the sequence that the dog walk has in it. I want to make that sequence easy for me, so not taxing on my handling skills.
I see this happen all the time, that the student really wants to work on one skill, but then the course that they're using is way too difficult for focusing on the dog walk, and then some other mistake happens before you ever get to the dog walk.
So then what do you do? Do you swap gears and focus on the mistake that just happened a few obstacles before? Do you ignore it and just keep going and continuing on your dog walk? I think that's where the waters get muddy in this how to deal with the mistakes. This is how the workshop came up.
Melissa Breau: I'm going to guess how you handle a mistake in the moment probably is different, depending on whether you're just training or whether you're actually competing, right?
Megan Foster: Absolutely.
Melissa Breau: Can you talk us through an example of how you would handle it during training, if something goes wrong? What does that look like for you?
Megan Foster: Usually, if something goes wrong the first time — hopefully no one's heads explode — but I usually just reward it anyway.
Melissa Breau: Fair enough.
Megan Foster: I usually just don't deal with it the first time, just because of going back to that of whose mistake was it, and in that moment I can't be sure. Was it my mistake, was it the dog's mistake, did something go in? So at least the first time, I'm just going to reward it and think about it on the way back, because I really feel like on the second attempt, if the dog knows the answer, he'll get it right that second time. So usually that first mistake, I draw it up to my favorite quotes from Dr. Katherine McAleese, and she says, "You're human, and your dog is not a machine," so one mistake, for me, is nothing.
Melissa Breau: To flip that, when we're talking about competition, obviously if something goes wrong on course, it's different than handling it during training. We were talking earlier about mindset and that piece. I think it's really easy for people to feel super self-critical, especially when we're talking about competition mistakes. Do you have any tips for talking yourself off the ledge, or ways that people can accept what you were just talking about — the fact that we're only human?
Megan Foster: Back to those mindset skills, this is absolutely part of it in that as far as handling mistakes in competition, the mindset skill to that is that your job is to keep the flow going for the dog, because that's how dogs tend to get ring-wise is when our lack of mindset skills and our emotions creep in, and they can make a negative impact on how our dog feels about competition. So at least in that very moment you try to keep going.
That's a lot about what the workshop is about is giving the handler the technical skill to be able to keep going, because that's usually the thing that's missing between training and competition.
Because in training, most of the time if we make a mistake, we can stop, we can reward the dog, we can talk to our instructor, or we can pause the video and go back re-watch something or reread our lecture notes.
But in a competition, none of that exists, and so usually what gets replaced with all that help that we're able to get in training is this void of information. The handler is melting down because they don't know what to do, and then the dog is melting down because no one is telling them what to do, and it becomes a little bit of a mess.
So the technical skills we try to teach to replace all those yucky feelings to handle errors in competition.
Melissa Breau: Technical skills — can you break that down for us just a little bit by explaining a little more what you cover in the workshop?
Megan Foster: Let's say my dog runs by an obstacle. In that moment, I've got options. I can just keep going as if it never happened, I can call the dog back and ask them to do it again, I can ask the dog to do some other behavior, like a sit, just to regain control over the situation, in case they're going wild, or depending on maybe this isn't the first mistake, I can just call it quits and call the dog to me and leave.
But each of those individual things needs to be trained and not be a surprise for the dog. What I find is that the dogs don't see these things from the human until they get to a competition. So in the workshop we're going to cover training each of those options.
Melissa Breau: So that you actually have options when something goes wrong in a competition.
Megan Foster: Right. And to practice those options so that the first time your dog sees some behavior from you should not be at a competition.
Melissa Breau: Right, because you were talking earlier about dogs becoming ring-wise. I'm assuming that's how that happens is because they get new stuff thrown at them.
Megan Foster: Absolutely. There are a handful of dogs, and I feel like my dog Smack is one of these, that he just learned as he went, and he was pretty OK with it. It wasn't that we didn't have problems, but he was pretty resilient to going with the flow and learning with me.
Now, ten years later, I have Shrek, who is none of those things. So this is where I'm at now is that if I do something he has never seen before, he looks like I have seven heads and that I have just broken some contract and I must be punished or something. I don't really mean it that way, but yeah, he looks at me like I have seven heads if I do something that he's not seen before.
I feel like everyone is dealing with one of these types of dogs — a dog that is like, "Yeah, all right, I've never seen that before, but she's pretty OK, and I really like agility, so I'll deal with it." The other side of that, the other extreme, is, "I'm actually here because there's reinforcement available, so don't show me things that I don't understand."
Melissa Breau: Right. And really, it's not fair for either dog to have things they don't understand thrown at them in that environment, but some dogs just handle it better.
Megan Foster: Exactly. Some dogs just handle it better, but now I'm to the point where I know better, so I'm going to do better and prepare all of the dogs, regardless of their personality. But even on the flipside of that is that I've given the handlers these tools so that I can replace their negative reactions to mistakes.
Melissa Breau: That feels like a big deal, because you were talking earlier about what do you do when an error happens. And if you don't even know what options are on the table, how are you going to make a choice in that moment when your dog is moving fast.
Megan Foster: It's the same thing. I don't want the handler to be out there prepared with a situation they've never seen either.
Melissa Breau: Are you going to get into, in the workshop, a little bit when you choose each option?
Megan Foster: Yes, absolutely, because a lot of that depends on my experience level with the dog, or even the rules of the game, because at different levels you can sometimes still be OK with a certain amount of faults. So it might be that if my dog just runs around one jump in Novice, and I know how to fix it without having the wheels fall off later, I could potentially save that run and still qualify. And I know that's a big part of everyone's goals for the weekend, potentially.
But also from an even bigger competitive stance, in USDAA you have these team events. So it's not just my score standing alone. Two other people are in this with me. So if I don't have a plan for fixing things and getting a score for my team, that can feel bad and potentially cause drama. But hopefully not, because you're not teaming with those people.
Melissa Breau: Right. At least hopefully not.
Megan Foster: Right. But I just think that you should be able to finish a run without the dog leaving or sniffing or barking or biting just because someone miscued something or someone didn't understand something.
Melissa Breau: So practicing those things and teaching your dog those things and learning them yourself helps set you up for not wasting quite so much money at the trial.
Megan Foster: Absolutely, and like I said, replacing the handler's negative reactions. The handlers that sigh and drop their shoulders when something unexpected happens, or they turn their backs to the dogs, something — those little problems that are causing big feelings from both ends of the leash, I find that these skills that we're covering in the workshop have replaced all of those feelings completely.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. We're getting close to the end here, and I want to go through some of the questions that I usually ask folks the first time they're on, every time they're on. The first one is what dog-related accomplishment are you proudest of?
Megan Foster: Oh gosh, this was hard for me to think of, but I still feel that my relationship with my second dog, Ty. He was a Sheltie, and I got him when he was 3 years old, and he already had some agility training. He was not what you would call a happy agility dog. He did not have a very good response when things went wrong.
I was 9 or 10 at the time, but within two years he was competing at the USDAA Nationals and placing in the national finals. I still hang on to that memory pretty dearly and why I constantly remind myself to just be that little girl playing with her dog.
Melissa Breau: To bring the fun back into it.
Megan Foster: Exactly. It's like, it'll be fine. Everything will be fine.
Melissa Breau: The next one: What's the best piece of training advice that you've ever heard?
Megan Foster: This one was fairly recent, but I love it. It's "Don't quit when you get it right; quit when you can't get it wrong."
Melissa Breau: Oh, I like that.
Megan Foster: Yeah, and it's not to mean go out there and drill yourself to death or drill your dog to death. It talks about fluency, and fluency isn't getting it right one time. Fluency is getting it right over and over and over and over and over again under all sorts of circumstances.
Melissa Breau: I think a lot of people overlook the importance of that piece.
Megan Foster: Totally. I want to push my boundaries all the time: Can I do it in this situation, can I do it in this situation, and push the boundaries of my fluency and my dog's fluency on any type of skill.
Melissa Breau: Last one: Who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?
Megan Foster: I couldn't answer this one. It was so hard. But honestly I am so lucky to be in the area of the country that I'm in. I have so many amazing people near me that I can train with on a pretty regular basis, and my students are amazing, and I have all of these influencers throughout the world. I live in this bubble of inspiration that I couldn't choose anyone, but I am very lucky and very thankful for all of the people around me in this sport, in agility and dog training.
Melissa Breau: You're in the Pacific Northwest, right?
Megan Foster: That's right.
Melissa Breau: It's a good bubble up there.
Megan Foster: It's so nice up here, and even if they're not local, I know that the people that I need on my side are just a phone call away, and that is so amazing.
Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Megan!
Megan Foster: Thanks for having me, Melissa. This was great.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely! And thank you to our listeners for tuning in! We will be back next week with Cat Warren, author of What the Dog Knows, to talk about her upcoming young readers' edition.
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Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.
Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!